Fact Check

Attack on the U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi

Various critical statements about the response to the September 2012 terrorist attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, were false.

Published Oct 31, 2012

Various critical statements about the September 2012 terrorist attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, are accurate.

The September 2012 terrorist attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, have been a wellspring of rumors, most of them critical of the Obama administration's response to the situation (particularly the actions of President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The block below captures some of the more prominent rumors from various sources that made the online rounds in the immediate aftermath of the attacks:

[Forbes, October 2012]

Just one hour after the seven-hour-long terrorist attacks upon the U.S. consulate in Benghazi began, our commander-in-chief, vice president, secretary of defense and their national security team gathered together in the Oval Office listening to phone calls from American defenders desperately under siege and watching real-time video of developments from a drone circling over the site. Yet they sent no military aid that might have intervened in time to save lives.

[Collected via e-mail, October 2012]

Reports have just surfaced from a former Navy Seal present in Benghazi that those on the ground in Benghazi sent an urgent request from the CIA annex for military back-up during the attack on the U.S. consulate. Those requests were denied by U.S. officials — who told the CIA operators twice to "stand down" rather than help the ambassador's team. They were told to "stand down," according to sources familiar with the exchange. Soon after, they were again told to "stand down." Thankfully, that former Seal and at least two others ignored those orders and made their way to the consulate which at that point was on fire.

[Collected via e-mail, October 2012]

The information I heard today was that General Ham as head of Africom received the same e-mails the White House received requesting help/support as the attack was taking place. General Ham immediately had a rapid response unit ready and communicated to the Pentagon that he had a unit ready.

General Ham then received the order to stand down. His response was to screw it, he was going to help anyhow. Within 30 seconds to a minute after making the move to respond, his second in command apprehended General Ham and told him that he was now relieved of his command.

Navy Rear Admiral, former commander of the USS John Stennis Strike Group, Rear Admiral Charles Gaouette was also mysteriously relieved of duty, and all the brass will say is he is "under investigation" for, get this, "inappropriate leadership judgment."

Just another way of saying that the admiral dared differ with the Administration's Libya policy and perhaps openly defied Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

The claim that top Obama administration officials were gathered in the Oval Office watching a real-time video feed of the September 2012 terrorist attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, but did nothing to intervene appears to have originated with a 24 October 2012 Forbes op-ed piece ("White House Watched Benghazi Attacked And Didn't Respond"), the opening paragraph of which is quoted in the example block above.

However, that description is a rather distorted version of what the news sources it references (CBS News and ABC News) actually reported. A CBS News story from that same day ("U.S. military poised for rescue in Benghazi") stated the following:

Meanwhile, CBS News correspondent Margaret Brennan reports that the FBI and State Department have reviewed video from security cameras that captured the attack on the consulate.

The audio feed of the attack was being monitored in real time in Washington by diplomatic security official Charlene Lamb. CBS News has learned that video of the assault was recovered 20 days later from the more than 10 security cameras at the compound.

The government security camera footage of the attack was in the possession of local Libyans until the week of Oct. 1. The video will be among the evidence that the State Department's review board will analyze to determine who carried out the assault.

According to that report, it was not the case that President Obama, Vice President Biden, Secretary of Defense Panetta, and a national security team were "watching real-time video of developments from a drone circling over the site"; rather, a single diplomatic security official was listening to an audio feed of events in Benghazi. Security cameras in the U.S. consulate compound did record video of the events as they unfolded, and a U.S. surveillance drone camera did capture the last hour of the attack, but neither of those sources was watched real-time by officials in Washington, as the consulate video recordings were not recovered until weeks after the attack:

Video footage from the United States consulate in Benghazi, Libya, taken the night of the Sept. 11 anniversary attacks, shows an organized group of armed men attacking the compound, according to two U.S. intelligence officials who have seen the footage and are involved in the ongoing investigation. The footage, which was recovered from the site [during the first week of October] by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, offers some of the most tangible evidence yet that a military-style assault took place, according to these officials.

The Obama administration has been studying the videos, taken from closed-circuit cameras throughout the Benghazi consulate’s four-building compound, for clues about who was responsible for the attack and how it played out. The two officials [said] that analysts are hoping to decipher the faces of the attackers and match them up with known jihadists.

In addition to the footage from the consulate cameras, the U.S. government is also poring over video taken from an overhead U.S. surveillance drone that arrived for the final hour of the night battle at the consulate compound and nearby annex.

On 26 October 2012, Fox News reported "urgent requests for military back-up" from those on the ground during the attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi were turned down by the CIA:

Fox News has learned from sources who were on the ground in Benghazi that an urgent request from the CIA annex for military back-up during the attack on the U.S. consulate and subsequent attack several hours later on the annex itself was denied by the CIA chain of command — who also told the CIA operators twice to "stand down" rather than help the ambassador's team when shots were heard at approximately 9:40 p.m. in Benghazi on Sept. 11.

Former Navy SEAL Tyrone Woods was part of a small team who was at the CIA annex about a mile from the U.S. consulate where Ambassador Chris Stevens and his team came under attack. When he and others heard the shots fired, they informed their higher-ups at the annex to tell them what they were hearing and requested permission to go to the consulate and help out. They were told to "stand down," according to sources familiar with the exchange. Soon after, they were again told to "stand down."

However, administration officials denied that any requests for military assistance by those at the U.S. mission in Benghazi were rejected:

The White House [has] flatly denied that President Barack Obama withheld requests for help from the besieged American compound in Benghazi, Libya, as it came under on attack by suspected terrorists on September 11th.

"Neither the president nor anyone in the White House denied any requests for assistance in Benghazi," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor [said].

And the CIA has denied that anyone in its chain of command rejected requests for help from the besieged Americans.

Fox News Channel reported that American officials in the compound repeatedly asked for military help during the assault but were rebuffed by CIA higher-ups. At a press briefing one day earlier, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, asked why there had not been a quicker, more forceful response to the assault, complained of "Monday-morning quarterbacking." Panetta said he and top military commanders had judged it too dangerous to send troops to the eastern Libyan city without a clearer picture of events on the ground.

On 1 November 2012, U.S. intelligence officials released an account stating the CIA had in fact rushed security operatives to the U.S. mission compound in Benghazi within half an hour of the start of the attack:

The CIA rushed security operatives to an American diplomatic compound in Libya within 25 minutes after it had come under attack and played a more central role in the effort to fend off a night-long siege than has been publicly acknowledged, U.S. intelligence officials said.

The agency mobilized the evacuation effort, took control of an unarmed U.S. military drone to map possible escape routes, dispatched an emergency security team from Tripoli, the capital, and chartered aircraft that ultimately carried surviving U.S. personnel to safety on Sept. 12, U.S. officials said.

U.S. intelligence officials insisted that CIA operatives in Benghazi and Tripoli made decisions rapidly throughout the assault with no interference from Washington, even while acknowledging that CIA security forces were badly outmatched and largely unable to mobilize Libyan security teams until it was too late.

Among the new disclosures is that the CIA station chief in Tripoli sent an emergency security force, with about a half-dozen agency operatives as well as two U.S. military personnel, to Benghazi aboard a hastily chartered aircraft while the attack was underway.

The CIA team attempted to organize an effort to make its way to a hospital where U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens had been taken and was thought to be still alive. But the team was held up by Libyan officials at the airport and scrapped the plan to reach Stevens after learning that the security situation at the hospital was uncertain.

The U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's 15 January 2014 review of the attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi viewed video footage documenting the dispatch of a security team to the Mission compound within 20-25 minutes of the first report of the attack, and they found that no "stand down" orders were issued to the security team at the Annex:

After the Diplomatic Security (DS) agent in the Tactical Operations Center at the Temporary Mission Facility alerted the Annex security team that TMF was under attack at 9:40, the Chief of Base called the [redacted] "who advised that he would immediately deploy a force to provide assistance," according to a September 19, 2012, cable.

Two armored vehicles were prepared so the security team could respond from the Annex. Approximately 20-25 minutes after the first call came into the Annex that the Temporary Mission Facility (TMF) was under attack, a security team left the Annex for the Mission compound. In footage taken from the Annex's security cameras, the security team can be observed departing the CIA Annex at 10:03 p.m. Benghazi time.

The team drove to the Mission facility and made their way onto the Mission compound in the face of enemy fire, arriving in the vicinity of the compound at approximately 10:10 p.m. Benghazi time. The Committee explored claims that there was a "stand down" order given to the security team at the Annex. Although some members of the security team expressed frustration that they were unable to respond more quickly to the Mission compound, 12 the Committee found no evidence of intentional delay or obstruction by the Chief of Base or any other party.

General Carter Ham headed the U.S. Africa Command during the attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi. A late October 2012 rumor claimed General Ham declined an order to "stand down" and attempted to provide military assistance during the attacks, only to be relieved of his command "within a minute" of doing so, and Rear Admiral Charles M. Gaouette was likewise relieved of his command for ordering his forces to support those ordered into action by General Ham. That rumor was fueled by an 18 October 2012 announcement that President Obama had selected a nominee to replace General Ham (who subsequently retired from the U.S. Army in April 2013) as commander of the U.S. Africa Command:

President Barack Obama will nominate Army Gen. David Rodriguez to succeed Gen. Carter Ham as commander of U.S. Africa Command and Marine Lt. Gen. John Paxton to succeed Gen. Joseph Dunford as assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced.

In announcing Ham’s successor, Panetta also praised the work Ham has done with Africa Command.

"Gen. Ham has really brought AFRICOM into a very pivotal role in that challenging region," Panetta said. "I and the nation are deeply grateful for his outstanding service."

However, Secretary of Defense Panetta stated during an October 2012 press briefing that General Ham was one of the military commanders who had judged it too dangerous to send troops to Benghazi without a clearer picture of events on the ground:

The "basic principle is that you don't deploy forces into harm's way without knowing what's going on; without having some real-time information about what's taking place," [Panetta] said during a joint question-and-answer session with Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff General Martin Dempsey.

"As a result of not having that kind of information, the commander who was on the ground in that area, General Ham, General Dempsey and I felt very strongly that we could not put forces at risk in that situation," Panetta said.

On 29 October 2012, General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also asserted that this rumor was false:

The speculation that General Carter Ham is departing Africa Command (AFRICOM) due to events in Benghazi, Libya, on 11 September 2012 is absolutely false. General Ham's departure is part of routine succession planning that has been on going since July. He continues to serve in AFRICOM with my complete confidence.

General Ham himself testified before the House Committee on Armed Services in June 2013 that the decision not to deploy close air support during the attack was made by him based on his assessment of the situation at the time, not because he was ordered to "stand down":

I will admit to giving a lot of thought about close air support. And in the lead up to September 11th, in the discussions about what forces should we have available, it was my determination, obviously with advice from others, but the responsibility was mine as the commander, was that close air support was not the appropriate tool in this situation.

And as I look back on the events of that night and say ... and think in my own mind would air have made a difference? And in my military judgment, I believe the answer is no. It was a very uncertain situation in an environment which we know we had an unknown surface-to-air threat with the proliferation particularly of shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, many of which remain unaccounted for. But mostly it was a lack of understanding of the environment, and hence the need for the Predator to try to gain an understanding of what was going on.

Knowing the intelligence that I had at the time, not obviously what I have now, but the intelligence I had at the time caused me to conclude in my military judgment that attack aircraft would not be the appropriate response tool. And so I did not direct a heightened alert. That is obviously fair for criticism, and knowing what we know now maybe that was — maybe I would make a different decision. But close air support I think, I still even knowing what I know now, think that was not the right tool to effect change in this situation.

General Ham also addressed this rumor directly during his testimony:

The head of U.S. Africa Command, Gen. Carter Ham, debunked a widespread rumor that he was removed from overseeing the military operation because he wanted to do more militarily that night than he was allowed to by his superiors or the White House.

Immediately following the Benghazi attack, the Internet became rife with speculation that Ham had been pushed out for wanting to do more militarily to help those Americans who were stranded after the attack. Shortly afterward, Ham announced his retirement, further fueling speculation that he was pushed out. Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Buck McKeon put the question to Ham.

MCKEON: "This might be a good time to ask ... I heard that you had made the statement that you were prepared to go to their aid and somebody told you no and you said you were going anyway. Is that all some supposition that comes from some reporter?"

HAM: "Yes, sir. No one ever told me no."

Admiral Charles M. Gaouette was also relieved of his command of an aircraft carrier strike group in late October 2012 for a reason that was initially specified only as a recent case of "inappropriate leadership judgment":

In an unusual move, the Navy has replaced an admiral commanding an aircraft carrier strike group while it is deployed to the Middle East. The replacement was prompted by an Inspector General's investigation of allegations of inappropriate leadership judgment. Rear Adm. Charles M. Gaouette, the commander of the USS John C. Stennis strike group, is being returned to the United States for temporary reassignment.

In a statement the Navy said it had approved a request made by Vice Adm. John W. Miller, the Commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, to temporarily reassign Gaouette "pending the results of an investigation by the Navy Inspector General."

A Navy official familiar with the circumstances of the investigation said it involved allegations of "inappropriate leadership judgment" and stressed it was not related to personal conduct.

The Stennis group arrived in the Fifth Fleet's area of operations on Oct. 17 to replace the USS Enterprise, which was on the final deployment of its 50 years of service. The allegations are recent and were made within the last couple of weeks.

It was later revealed that Adm. Gaouette had been relieved of his command not for any reason connected to the September 2012 attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, but because a complaint about his "unprofessional demeanor" had been filed against him by the USS John C. Stennis' commanding officer, Capt. Ronald Reis. A subsequent Navy investigation reprimanded Gaouette for repeatedly violating U.S. Navy policy by making and sending offensive comments and e-mail messages:

"Exemplary conduct" is the expected standard for the Navy's commanding officers, and there Rear Adm. Chuck Gaouette fell far short.

The Navy reprimanded a former strike group commander March 25, five months after he was fired for swearing and allegedly making racially tinged comments that resulted in his being flown off an aircraft carrier deployed to the Arabian Gulf.

A Navy investigation has found that Gaouette, ousted from command of the Stennis Carrier Strike Group in October [2012], made a host of potentially offensive comments that his rivals in the deployed strike group pounced on to get him relieved: He swore profusely, flipping off lieutenants, speculated that black admirals were chosen because of their race and sent six white officers a racially tinged email about a black sailor.

Interviews with strike group sailors and leaders "left little doubt they would not choose to behave in the same manner as did their commander," the Naval Inspector General concluded in its report, which ruled that Gaouette's offensive email and racial comments each violated Navy policy. Adm. Jon Richardson reprimanded Gaouette on March 25 [2013] and ordered that the investigation be attached to his service record.


Bell, Larry.   "White House Watched Benghazi Attacked and Didn't Respond."     Forbes.   24 October 2012.

Fellman, Sam.   "Reprimand Likely Ends Admiral's Career."     Navy Times.   3 April 2013.

Fellman, Sam.   "Report: Fired 1-Star Sent Racially Offensive Emails."     Military Times.   12 April 2013. Griffin, Jennifer.   "CIA Operators Were Denied Request for Help During Benghazi Attack."     FoxNews.com.   26 October 2012.

Griffin, Jennifer.   "US Military Woefully Unprepared for Attack, Documents Show."     FoxNews.com.   14 January 2014.

Hlad, Jennifer.   "Obama to Nominate Army Gen. Rodriguez to Lead AFRICOM."     Stars & Stripes.   18 October 2012.

Knox, Olivier.   "Obama Did Not Deny Requests for Help in Benghazi."     Yahoo! News.   28 October 2012.

Lake, Eli.   "Video From Benghazi Consulate Shows Organized Attack."     Forbes.   12 October 2012.

Martin, David.   "U.S. Military Poised for Rescue in Benghazi."     CBS News.   24 October 2012.

Martinez, Luis.   "Navy Replaces Admiral Leading Strike Group Because of Ongoing Investigation."     ABC News.   27 October 2012.

Miller, Greg.   "CIA Rushed to Save Diplomats as Libya Attack Was Underway."     The Washington Post.   1 November 2012.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.